Going Beyond New Releases: Appreciating Culture as Tradition, Part 2

Going Beyond New Releases: Appreciating Culture as Tradition, Part 2 June 10, 2009

If you haven’t already, read part 1 here.

Aside from consumer culture, society’s increasing dependence on and trust in technology has contributed to the belief that what is newer is always better and more worth our time. Technology has always had an affect on how works are made and what gets made, but the rapid changes in technology that we have seen in the last 30 or so years have had a more dramatic effect and have given rise to the belief that cultural artifacts can become obsolete, just like any other technology.

One example of this (and one that hits quite close to home for me as a Star Wars geek) is the Special Editions of the original Star Wars Trilogy released by George Lucas in the 90’s. Some scenes were added to each of the films, but the biggest changes were in the updated special effects. What these re-releases imply is that the films were no longer acceptable to a modern audience; they had become obsolete or defective and needed an upgrade to compete against contemporary films with better special effects.

This same mentality deeply impacts the way video games are designed, as developers are expected to always improve the graphics of each new game and older games are generally treated as inferior, except to a minority of gaming fans. Pac-Man might have been the game to play in the 80’s and many people might still have fond memories of playing the arcade version, but I would guess that most people would judge that Pac-Man is less valuable and is a lower quality game than those released on modern consoles. In other words, it is easy to confuse the quality of the technology with the quality of the work as a whole, and to therefore conclude that the older work is always made obsolete by the newer work, which is superior.

I suspect that this mentality also affects the way we view different mediums of creation too, so that books are viewed as an obsolete form of storytelling which TV and film has replaced. While there is nothing wrong in acknowledging that technology can and often does improve the quality of cultural artifacts that are created, we cannot make the error of believing that the existence of newer technology devalues the quality of older works. Just because Lucas releases a new and “improved” version of Star Wars does not mean that the original version is not worth watching, and just because someone made a film version of a Harry Potter book does not mean that the book is obsolete. For Christians, what this means is that we should not accept the false belief that technology always progresses and improves what it touches and that the future will necessarily be better because of it. We can certainly recognize the benefits of technology, but when we begin to believe that the works people have creatively and skillfully made in the past are no longer valuable because a more technologically advanced version could be made now, then we are getting dangerously close to viewing technology as an idol of progress.

If we believe that presentism is not a God-honoring or neighbor-loving habit of mind for Christians, and once we have identified how this ideology is promoted in society, our next task is to discern practical ways to nurture an understanding of culture as historically constituted. There are lots of ways I believe we can challenge this mindset, but here are five simple actions we can take:

  1. Buy something old, maybe even used, and enjoy it! Order a classic movie from Netflix. Buy a used classic novel from a used bookstore. Look through the Oldies or maybe even Classical section of iTunes. Download an NES game for your Wii.
  2. See the original instead of the remake. There are many variants to this. Read the book instead of watching the movie. Listen to the original song instead of the cover.
  3. Think about how the medium was used effectively. If you spend all your time watching a black and white movie wishing that it was colorized, then you’re missing the point. Fight the urge to judge the quality of the work based on what could be made today by focusing on how they used the resources they had effectively. Think about they way lighting is used in a black and white movie, how arrangement is important in mono recordings, and how descriptions are used in novels.
  4. Delight in the cultural differences. Whether you are separated by time, geography, ethnicity, or religion, making the effort to enjoy the differences and similarities between yourself and the culture of the work will allow you to enjoy the nuance of God’s creation. You might have a hard time understanding the social dynamics in a Jane Austen novel, or the language of Shakespeare’s plays, but it is worth the effort.
  5. Try to understand how a genre, theme, or idea has progressed over time. Watch The Maltese Falcon and other film noirs to see how The Dark Knight and similar contemporary movies play with the genre. Listen to 60’s political folk, 70’s and 80’s punk, 90’s hardcore, and contemporary rock music to see how popular music has been used to make political statements. Remember that works always exist in conversation with other works.

In a society which so forcefully priviledges the new over the old, it is important for believers to make an effort to value and enjoy good works wherever they might be found, even if it requires a little extra work.

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  • RE #1: This really doesn’t work so well. With the exception of a handful of games, relic games really don’t have anything on the more recent vintage. When I got my PS2 four years ago, I got Midway Classics in addition to games like Dark Cloud 2, God of War, and GTA:SA. I was excited because these were the arcade games that I grew up with.

    SpyHunter, Defender, Gauntlet, Joust, Paperboy, Rampage, Marble Madness, Robotron 2084, Smash TV, etc.

    And you know what? The games just aren’t that fun. Especially when you aren’t risking a quarter. They’re repetitive and uninspired. They don’t reward time spent.

    There are of course exceptions. Zelda and Metroid and Super Mario Bros. on NES. Zork and its descendants on PC. Plus all the LucasArts adventure games like Monkey Island (currently being remade) and the still sublime Grim Fandango. You start getting better games once the Genesis/SNES generation hits (I can still play and adore Herzog Zwei). But even with the lauded game series troubles crop up. I recently purchased the Fallout collection (since I enjoyed the world I explored in the Bethesda version) and, well, I was so underwhelmed by the obnoxious control scheme that I put it down ’til a time when I’m really bored with games I already have.

    (Which may be a while. Talking about Morrowind inspired me and as soon as I put down WoW, I’ll probably return for a third go through the land of Vvardenfall—despite the crappy graphics.)

    In any case, my point is: sometimes we privilege the New because it deserves to be privileged. If I pick up a random game from today, I’m flat out more likely to enjoy it more than a random game from 1987. I mean, I loved Ice Climber at the time, but it doesn’t exactly hold up and its glories were all relative to what came before it.

    This is kind of what I was getting at with comics and film. The newer produce in these media should be privileged over that from their gestational eras.

    The Danes last blog post..20090417.teaParty

  • Alan Noble

    @Dane, While I’m on vacation, I am restricting myself to one sentence comments in order to spend more time relaxing, and this was the one sentence.

  • That was a sentence!